Russia Ukraine News: Russia puts more force behind Ukraine’s ‘creeping’ advance

Reinforced Russian troops, backed by airstrikes, slammed across eastern Ukraine on Saturday, blowing up bridges and shelling apartment buildings as they battled to capture two towns that would place a province contested under Moscow’s control, Ukrainian officials said.

Russian and Ukrainian forces fought street by street in Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Lysychansk, regional governor Serhiy Haidai said. The Russian strikes killed four people, including a mother and a child, in the nearby village of Hirske, Haidai said.

The cities are the last major regions of Lugansk province still held by Ukraine. The Russian attacks are central to the Kremlin’s diminished wartime goal of seizing the entire Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces for eight years and established self-declared republics.

Russia has also stepped up its attacks in Donetsk, the other Donbass province, the Ukrainian military said as the war reached its 101st day.

Reflecting the close combat, Russian and Ukrainian military officers have blamed each other for a fire that destroyed a 1912 wooden church at Svyatohirsk Monastery, one of Ukraine’s holiest Orthodox Christian sites. The sprawling 16th-century monastery, which sits on the bank of the Siverskiy Donets River, has already been hit several times during the war, most recently on Wednesday when three monks were killed.

In his nightly video address on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “deliberately and systematically destroying Ukrainian culture and historical heritage, as well as social infrastructure like housing and everything necessary for normal life.”

Zelenskyy said 113 churches were damaged or destroyed during the invasion, some of which survived World War II battles.

In recent days, Russian forces have focused on capturing Sievierodonetsk, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war. At one point they held 90% of the city, but Ukrainian soldiers recovered ground, Haidai reported on Friday. Zelenskyy described the city’s situation on Saturday as “extremely difficult”.

Western military analysts said Russia was devoting significant manpower and firepower to what British officials called a “creeping advance” into Donbass.

“The combined use of airstrikes and artillery has been a key factor in Russia’s recent tactical successes in the region,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an assessment on Saturday. The ministry warned that after launching so many guided missiles, Russia was employing unguided missiles which “almost certainly caused significant collateral damage and civilian casualties”.

The Ukrainian army said it repelled nine attacks in Donbass in 24 hours. The claim could not be independently verified.

While Russian forces are concentrated in the Donbass, Ukraine has staged counterattacks in an attempt to regain territory in the south.

After seizing most of the Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk regions, as well as the port city of Mariupol, Moscow installed local administrators, offered residents Russian passports and took other steps to consolidate its hold on the occupied areas.

Russian shelling has killed at least three civilians in the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich said on Saturday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Russian officials and troops were facing growing resistance among the local population and “an increase in partisan activity in southern Ukraine”.

The institute cited accounts on Russian Telegram channels of threats against residents who were issued Russian passports.

The Ukrainian Center for National Resistance, which created a website to advise people on sabotage and other techniques, said Kherson residents were being encouraged to burn down a Russian passport center.

The Ukrainian army has noted with approval the problems encountered by the occupation authorities, saying that the leaders installed by Russia in Kherson wore bulletproof vests and traveled in armored vehicles.

In other developments:

  • Ukraine’s foreign minister has denounced the French president for saying the West should not “humiliate” Russian President Vladimir Putin. French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with French newspapers on Friday that Putin had made a “historic mistake” in invading but that world powers should not “humiliate Russia, so that when the fighting stops we can build together a way out through diplomatic channels”. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted in response: “Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and all other countries that would call for it. … We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. It will bring peace and save lives.”

  • The bodies of more than 1,300 civilians have been exhumed so far in the Ukrainian capital region following the Russian military withdrawal from the area, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported on Saturday. The bodies were sent to morgues for forensic examination and some 200 of the victims have not been identified, ministry spokeswoman Alyona Matveyeva said. Since Russian forces left the area in early April, Ukrainian authorities have been collecting the dead, exhuming bodies from mass graves and collecting evidence for possible war crimes investigations and prosecutions.

  • A Russian rocket hit an agricultural site in the Odessa region on Saturday, injuring two, according to a regional military chief. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said a missile attack destroyed a foreign mercenary base. Odessa is home to Ukraine’s largest seaport and is therefore vital to the country’s ability to ship grain and other goods. The attack came hours after Kuleba, the foreign minister, tweeted: “Ukraine is ready to create the necessary conditions to resume exports from the port of Odessa. The question is how to ensure that Russia does not abuse the trade route to attack the city. .”

  • Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in an interview published on Saturday that Russia suffered far fewer military casualties compared to the first six weeks of the war. The lower numbers could lead Russian commanders to believe “that they are fighting successfully”, Podolyak was quoted by the Meduza website as saying. Speaking on Ukrainian television, he expressed optimism that new weapons supplied by the West could change the “mathematics” of warfare.

  • Pope Francis said he had to wait for the “right time” to visit Ukraine. A Ukrainian refugee who was part of a group of children visiting the Vatican asked the pontiff if he would like to visit his homeland. Francis told the boy that he thought a lot about children in Ukraine and wanted to go there. He said it’s “not easy to make a decision that could do more harm than good to the whole world. I have to find the right time to do it.” The pope said he would discuss the issue next week when Ukrainian government officials visit the Vatican.

Christi C. Elwood